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Why Valentine’s Day Hurts After a Breakup

After a breakup, the pain triggered by Valentine's Day can catch many off guard.

Key points

  • After a breakup, people are usually less upset than they had previously predicted.
  • Yet Valentine's Day changes this pattern, research suggests, because it focuses people's thoughts on romance.
  • In one study, people felt worse than they thought about a previous breakup on Valentine's Day.
Source: Jolygon/Shutterstock

Breakups hurt. Even if you were the one who decided to end the relationship, breakups still leave behind ended hopes and hurt feelings. And Valentine’s Day can amplify the pain in some unexpected ways.

How Upset Do Breakups Usually Make Us?

Imagine you broke up with your romantic partner. It’s a month later—how upset about the breakup do you think you would be?

You might be less upset than you think. Research by psychologists Dan Gilbert and Tim Wilson found that most people expect to be more upset than they actually would be. When people look into the future, their “affective forecasts”—predictions about their future emotions—tend to exaggerate the impact of an event like a breakup on their feelings.

There are several reasons why people expect to be more upset than they actually are. One is that people do not recognize that daily life will distract them. After a breakup, for example, any given day will be busy with school, work, family, laundry, etc. All of those daily activities will lessen how much people are thinking about their ended romance.

Another reason people expect to be more upset than they later experience is that people tend to recover quickly after negative events. People are generally very good at coping with events and use a number of different strategies to reduce hurt feelings.

So, even though people anticipate that they will still be devastated about a breakup weeks later, they probably will be less upset than they thought.

Valentine’s Day Changes the Typical Pattern

Now imagine that you broke up with your partner. It is a month later; you have not thought about them in weeks and have been moving on with your life.

But today is Valentine’s Day—red and white hearts and cupids festoon every surface and store, and advertisements for engagement rings and stories of love are everywhere. How upset about the breakup do you think you would be?

In a 2011 study I co-authored, college students who were in a committed romantic relationship were invited to predict how upset they would feel if their relationship ended. They forecast for two days a month in the future—February 7 or February 14. Participants later reported if they had broken up (about 1 out of 5 had) and how upset they were about the breakup, with half reporting on Valentine’s Day and half for February 7.

A week before Valentine’s Day, forecasts showed the typical pattern—participants were less upset than they thought they would be about the breakup. On Valentine’s Day, however, the opposite pattern emerged: People were more upset than they expected. This was because they experienced more intrusive thoughts about the relationship on Valentine’s Day.

What might this mean for the impact of Valentine’s Day on people with recently ended romances? It means that the heartbroken are likely to be more upset, and also that they may be surprised by how upset they feel. When people are surprised by their emotions, pain and negative emotions tend to get amplified because people are unprepared to cope with their response. Ouch.

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